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HI3J1 Empire and Oil: BP and the Building of the Global Oil Industry in Iran

The building of the world oil industry served as the occasion for one of the largest political projects of technical and economic development in the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Along with railroads, dams, electricity and communications networks, and other large-scale technical systems, a vast global network of oil wells, pipelines, refineries, and transoceanic shipping resulted from this enterprise. While everyone is aware of the importance of oil to the history of the modern Middle East, we know surprisingly little about how the social and technical properties of oil have shaped that history. Conventional ways of writing social and political history treat technical problems of producing, processing, and selling oil as practices that are external to the social world. Oil in turn has an "impact" on society, as simply a natural resource that affects political systems, social and economic orders, and state formation from the outside while blocking the possibility for democratic forms of politics.

The origins of the first oil industry in the Middle East reside in a little-known part of southwest Iran, now known as Khuzestan province, bordering the Persian Gulf. This special subject offers students the opportunity to make use of rich primary sources held in the BP Archive (e.g. company reports, newspapers, photography, and film) at the University of Warwick in order to develop an alternative account of the history of oil, specifically of BP in Iran. Focusing on the anatomy of one company, students will follow the transformation of oil through the machinery of oil operations (technical, legal, governmental, administrative), from the initial development of the Anglo-Iranian oil industry in the first decade of the twentieth century to the company’s dramatic departure and subsequent return as BP during Iran’s oil nationalization crisis over fifty years later.

The module is designed to be attractive to students interested in the history of British empire in the Middle East as well as business history and the history of science and technology that draws on interdisciplinary thinking in science and technology studies. It encourages students to rethink historical and political analysis by drawing connections between the political and historical forces through which large-scale infrastructures such as an oil industry have been shaped and the technical forces through which politics and history have been shaped.

Module Convenor: Dr. Katayoun Shafiee


Office Hours (Room H0.23, Humanities Building): Wednesday, 11:00-12:00; Thursday, 1:00-2:00, during term or by appointment.

Principal Learning Outcomes:

* Understand and critically apply the methods of history and science and technology studies to a range of primary sources.
* Understand the connection between political and economic interests and analyse its significance for imperial history and the present situation in the Middle East.
* Experience with working in an archive.
* Develop essay-writing skills.
* Develop seminar participation skills including presentations.

Timetabled Teaching Activities:

19 x 2 hour seminars
2 x 2 hour exam revision sessions
1 x 2 hour essay preparation and feedback

Assessment Methods

This special subject centres on an analysis of extensive primary material concerning the BP company in Iran from 1901 to 1954. It is assessed by a three-hour exam for students basing a dissertation on the module. A two-hour exam and a 4,500 word essay for students not basing a dissertation on the module. A mock exam is available here.

All students taking this course are also required to write two non-assessed essays of approximately 2,000 words length each. You may take the seminar questions as essay titles (subject to approval by the module convenor), to analyze a primary source, review a secondary source, or conduct a literature review. Essays should be submitted via Tabula. See the Departmental Style Guide for advice on how to format your work.

The first essay must be submitted by 6.00pm on Friday of Week 7, Term 1

The second essay must be submitted by 6.00pm on Friday of Week 7, Term 2

For deadlines and submission details, see: Deadlines and Submission

Possible long essay and dissertation topics, see here.

Seminars and Readings


Demonstrators in support of Nationalization